One day last week, I had one of those coaching experiences that caused me to take a moment to pause and reflect. In consecutive lessons, I encountered two wildly contrasting performers that emphasized the importance of coaching the ‘whole’ athlete.
Both were really good junior players who I was seeing for the first time– the objective of each session was to assess current skill level so we could begin to map a path towards improvement. Student A had received little previous short game instruction, but self-reported relatively good results around the green. As I assessed his motion, it was clear that there were some serious technical deficiencies. His motion was far from the idealized model of short game performance that I can’t help but have in my mind as I assess a player for the first time. But as we went through a skills assessment, his proficiency shocked me. He knew which types of shots to hit– when to bump it, when to use some loft, and how to modify his ‘sub-optimal’ technique for various lies. Not much in the style department, but skill in spades.
Student B was the complete opposite. As I assessed his motion to an open space; the motion looked flawless, exhibiting nearly everything I like to see in a finesse wedge motion. Honestly, had he not reported poor performance around the greens, I might have just checked the box and moved on to a different skill. But as I had him perform the skill in context, the reasons for his struggles became very clear. He hit the same shot for every situation that I gave him. That one stock shot was really good, but the shots he encountered required adjustments that he was unable to make them, or worse, oblivious to the need to make them.
To us, this experience is yet another reminder of the multi-dimensional nature of skill development. It’s a complicated process with a lot of moving parts that require more than just technique. And in this case, it prompted us to explore the importance of including decision-making training in our coaching sessions.
High performers understand the subtle nuances of the game – they posses an innate ability to process a given situation and make decisions that improve their odds of a lower score while reducing their odds of a higher one. In other words, they have greater tactical intelligence.
Fortunately for us, there are plenty of resources to help us improve this aspect of our coaching. From a ‘what to develop’ standpoint, the information available from various sources regarding the statistical analysis of golf are a huge asset in creating understanding regarding some key strategic fundamentals. We can also turn to pedagogical systems, such as Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) and Decision Training to help us provide an environment that not only develops technical skill, but also cognitive processing skills and decision-making capacities that lead to improved on-course performance.
Our next few posts will be dedicated to the idea of ‘Coaching Tactics’. This week, we will highlight a number of benefits of decision-making training and in our next post we will provide some practical applications– a number of specific tasks that we use in our coaching to develop higher tactical intelligence. But for now, lets continue to look at a few more of the compelling reasons to sharpen this often neglected tool in our coaching toolbox.
ALL HAT, NO CATTLE
Sorry for the Texas aphorism, but Student B from my story is a great example of a player who is, at least around the greens, all hat and no cattle. He certainly looks the part and would have appeared to be a solid scrambler based on the technical proficiency of his finesse wedge stroke– but in actuality, it was all style and not enough substance. We see this a lot– players (and coaches) who are so taken by the technical aspects of skill that they ignore the aspects that allow them to transfer that skill to the dynamic environment of the course.
To fully develop his ability, tactical development will be imperative. Golf demands that a player be able to perceive their environment and react appropriately. Without a better understanding of a the nuances of short game performance, his scores would most certainly stagnate. So the next step would be to diversify that skill set and identify the various environmental cues that trigger more appropriate solutions.
A RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL BOATS
While our physical skills are often subject to frequent lapses in performance, solid decision-making is one of the few skills largely within the player’s control. So when we integrate tactical training in our coaching, it represents this low-hanging fruit that is not only easier to develop, but a reliable tool to elevate performance, even when the physical skills may be ‘off’. Especially for newer players, building these cognitive abilities early on can yield lower scores sooner and accelerate their performance and enjoyment in golf. We see this often on Tour as players perform at a high level despite reporting that they were operating without their A-game. So even as a player struggles with developing more functional technique, the boat can remain afloat by utilizing exceptional decisions making processes.
TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE
When we are working on decision-making, we are required to do so in an environment that integrates skills in context. So in the case of our example with Player B, I need to present him with course-like situations that will require modifications to his already solid base motion. That way he can begin to gain a better understanding for what to pay attention to in the environment and how to make more optimal decisions. As a natural by-product of these exercises, he will start to develop slight modifications to that already effective base motion. Sometimes without ever really consciously noticing it, as he starts to self-source more effective solutions to the variety of obstacles presented within a more dynamic learning environment, a more versatile technique can emerge. So we shoot two birds with one stone– improved decision-making along with a more flexible technique.
SEPARATE FROM THE PACK
In a contest of otherwise technical equals, adaptability and innovation will prevail. – Dr. Ray Brown
For competitive players, this is likely the most compelling argument for developing greater tactical intelligence. To reach a certain level of performance in golf, a requisite level of technique exists– and one of the few aspects that can separate a player at this level is their ability to make better strategic decisions and adapt their skills to the ever-changing conditions that they encounter in competition. Likewise, this is where an otherwise technically deficient player can make up ground on the pack. These ‘over-achievers’ are often praised for their hard work and grit, but without superior tactical intelligence, they would too often be overmatched by their technical superiors.
This is an area of coaching that we looking forward to digging more into in the coming weeks. In the next post, we will provide more practical insights for how to include tactical training in the coaching process. Along with a decision-making model, we will share a number of tasks that integrate decision-making to improve this aspect of our player’s performance.
– COREY LUNDBERG & MATT WILSON